Berkeley Lab researchers develop technology to refine compostable plastic

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, and University of Massachusetts, Amherst scientists developed technology that, through a process of refining compostable plastic, can potentially reduce microplastic pollution.

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Technology developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, and University of Massachusetts, Amherst scientists and engineers can possibly reduce microplastic pollution in landfills and oceans through a process of refining compostable plastic.

The technology “nanoscopically” plants enzymes into polyesters, according to Ting Xu, senior author of the study. Xu added that through the implantation of the enzymes, the chemical bonds that link molecules together will break and form a polymer.

“When the enzymes are activated, e.g. inside of composts or in lukewarm water at home, the enzyme will chow the polymers like a pokemon and break the polyesters into small molecules,” Xu said in an email.

After the polyesters are turned into small molecules, or monomers, the remaining material can be transformed into a compostable plastic product, according to a Berkeley Lab press release.

The press release added that a majority of recycled plastic products often wind up in landfills and oceans. Xu noted that current biodegradable plastic is not guaranteed to be compostable, resulting in numerous plastic waste issues, including biodegradable plastics forming into microplastics after breaking down.

However, the technology ensures that biodegradable plastic will be compostable, Xu said.

Additionally, Thomas Russell, co-author of the study, experimented with interfacial testing, according to the press release. Through the testing, the researchers found that as plastic material decomposed into small molecules, the size and shape of droplets from the material would change.

The interfacial test provided additional information about the degradation process, allowing Xu’s team to successfully recover plastic monomers from biodegradable plastic, the press release states.

The idea and development for the research came from previous work Xu’s lab has been conducting for more than a decade, working with hybrid materials based on proteins and polymers, according to Xu.

“Facing the crisis associated with plastic wastes and issues associated with biodegradable plastic being not degradable in real life, we invested our efforts to provide solutions to single-use plastic wastes,” Xu said in the email.

Currently, the research team is hoping to commercialize the technology, according to Xu.

The team is also looking for industrial collaborators to introduce the technology into people’s daily lives, Xu added.

“(The development of the technology) began about 4 years ago and will not end until they make it to people’s grocery stores and kitchen countertops,” Xu said in the email.

Contact Mia Scher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @miascher_dc.